Summary

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Last Updated November 6, 2023.

When Willliam Butler Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in 1919, the world was still reeling from some of the deadliest and most violent episodes in human history. The Russian Revolution, the Irish Uprising, the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, and the First World War were fresh in the minds of the public. In this ode to the disarray and pessimism of the times, Yeats captures the popular mood of many of his contemporaries. The poem initially appeared in November of 1920 in one of the most significant literary journals of the time, The Dial.

 

To grasp the significance of "The Second Coming," one must understand the poem's opening line. The "widening gyre" is more than just the falcon's spiraling flight—it's part of Yeats's view of history. Inspired by philosophers like Vico and Nietzsche, Yeats thought history goes in cycles, with each age replaced by its opposite. Gyres are his way of showing these changing times clashing and blending.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  

Right away, Yeats sets the tone for the poem and describes a world in turmoil. It begins with a falcon spiraling out of control and can no longer hear its falconer. Since falcons and falconers are meant to be in close communication and responsive to each other, this symbolizes a loss of order and connection. 

 

The speaker then declares that "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," indicating a profound breakdown of society. It may also be a reference to the battles of the First World War, which destroyed large swaths of Europe and left millions dead. Anarchy has been unleashed, and a sense of chaos prevails as the "ceremony of innocence" is drowned, suggesting the loss of purity or moral clarity.

 

The first stanza concludes by noting a stark contrast between those who lack conviction and the passionate intensity of those who may be considered "the worst." This sets the stage for the exploration of disintegration, disorder, and the search for meaning in the subsequent lines of the poem.

 

The second of the two stanzas introduces the theme of an impending revelation or "Second Coming," which carries strong allegorical echoes of Christian imagery. The speaker contemplates the notion that a significant transformative event, akin to the return of Christ, is imminent. 

 

The poem starts to paint a picture of a world on the brink of apocalypse with a jarring and vivid vision. In this vision, a mysterious and monstrous creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man is described, evoking imagery reminiscent of the Book of Revelation in the Bible or perhaps the sphinx. 

 

This creature's gaze is described as "blank and pitiless as the sun," and it is seen moving in a desert landscape, causing distress among the desert birds and suggesting barbarianism. The soul of the universe, or Spiritus Mundi, has awakened the creature to bring about a significant change or ending to the world.

 

The speaker then alludes to a long period of dormancy, suggesting that "twenty centuries of stony sleep" have been disturbed by this unsettling image. Perhaps the recent violent actions of humanity have awoken this creature.

 

The poem concludes that this mysterious and ominous "rough beast" will soon be making its way toward Bethlehem, a significant biblical location, possibly to be born or reborn in a symbolic sense. While the creature has not yet come, the conditions for its arrival are in place. This vision is steeped in apocalyptic imagery, aligning with the poem's use of Christian allegory to convey themes of disorder, meaning, and the interplay between the mundane and the divine.

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